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The point of worrying about what I want to be has been passed. Now I worry about where I want to be. When I first considered where I might spend my “golden years,” I looked at retirement communities in sunshine states and even bought a little flat among the other “old-age pensioners” on the south coast of England, but none of the options seemed quite right. The sight of a small van offloading a clump of lumpy ladies at the Kennedy Center, all with their gray heads identically coiffed, made me sad; I thought of being in their midst. An elderly man carefully dressed in a dated sports jacket, a shirt that gaped at the neck, and a fat, shiny tie stiffly knotted who sat quietly weeping in an apricot lounge chair in a rococo chandeliered lounge gave the lie to the complex’s glossy advertisements with their laughing seniors. I saw another older man one afternoon in front of a barber shop, waiting on a bench with patient resignation in the hot sun for an overdue bus to take him back to his retirement home.
Retirement communities offer long-term care. But, like so many elements of our society that extract a price for the American obsession with security, they rob you of wonderful years of independent living to insure against the uncertainty of disability in old age.
I have tried to evaluate what that trade-off is worth. Although I presently lead an idyllic life on a small Florida island for part of each year, I know that the time is coming when the physical activities associated with this environment will not always be possible. The choice of an eventual home is individual; my husband will spend his declining years in the Southwest, where the air and the vistas suit him. But no one can make that decision for another person. The dry climate of Santa Fe and the boredom that I feel with its rhinestone-studded jackets, truncated opera season, and general lack of city life after two turns around the plaza has me desperate to return to civilization.
The principal criterion for a happy old age is, for me, being able to walk to obtain the necessities of everyday existence. I believe real old age begins when you are unable to drive and have to rely on others for basic needs. This is the phase in life when many move to a communal enclave designed expressly for the elderly.
The prospect fills me with dread. The thought of being isolated in a planned, parklike complex with others my age, eating dinner at 4:30, watching Lawrence Welk, and playing board games horrifies me.
Others, I find, are also considering their options. A recent New York Times article examines the dilemma of the aging gay person who is seeking a niche in retirement communities or nursing homes. Developers, the article reports, “are planning retirement communities specifically for homosexuals, places that will allow gays to grow old surrounded by other gays.”
I reject that assumption; being surrounded by a total cultural sameness, whatever your lifestyle niche, is stifling.
I have lived in an apartment at 18th and Q Streets NW, off and on, since the building was converted from rentals to condos in the late ’70s. In the foyer, I have watched a young disabled man haltingly conversing with the receptionist and then shakily maneuvering his way through the doors and down the sidewalk. I have seen a blind lady being helped into a cab under the building’s portico and a woman my age, also a resident, planting our little curbside plot with flowers each summer.
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It takes a giant leap of faith for old people to settle down in what is thought to be ground zero for the fast-laners. But if those more impaired than I can manage, I can do it, too: I can live right here. As I wind down my life, Dupont Circle—and my little one-bedroom apartment—is where I’m going to stay.
Dupont Circle has undergone a metamorphosis that is more dramatic than is immediately apparent because it has been so maddeningly slow and gradual—a butterfly with wings caught in its chrysalis.
When I first moved to the neighborhood 25 years ago, the culture was hippie- and drug-oriented. The proximity of the new Metro and my presumption that it would be a good real estate investment prompted me to buy. The spectacular view from my first apartment, an efficiency, took my breath away. I fell in love with the vista looking over the rooftops to the Washington Cathedral and the cozy isolation of being at the top…regardless of how modest that top was. I loved walking to work, the morning air, the rain-washed streets, and the entire panoply of lifestyles converging and contrasting.
But best of all was the incredible feeling of liberation that came from freeing myself from the burden of an automobile.
Some days the filth of the streets and the always apparent human misery from drugs or economic deprivation would make my stomach churn and cause me to doubt my sanity in buying in an area that showed no signs of improvement and was regressing politically.
Slowly, Dupont became a place known for inexpensive living for young people in their first jobs. Later, with the influx of a large gay population, the circle began to reflect the flair of the homosexuals. Now there are people, like myself, straight and gay alike, who are finding stability and charm in what was formerly only a marginally acceptable place to live.
The way the changes in the Dupont area are reflected in our laundry room amuses me. As residents have become older and more affluent, loads of clothes left overnight in the dryers and dried to a crunchy texture have become rare. The shelf holding orphan socks is no longer piled high, and lint filters are regularly cleaned.
When I have been away from my neighborhood for a while and then return, I am startled by it—the new panhandler at the Q Street Metro exit, the choices at Starbucks, the uneven pavement and unlevel lives. The language and issues of the City Paper perplex me anew. I know this is in English, but what can it all mean? Then I settle in, my skirts get shorter, I slip on my high-heeled mules, and my creepy 60-something upper arms see the light of day…because, hey, it’s Dupont Circle.
My building has unusual transoms that allow faint noise from adjoining apartments to drift in. Humanity close by is comforting to me. I like the corridor smells and sounds: bacon frying, a stew with garlic, cookies baking. The ritualistic hum of an Eastern religion’s follower’s droning “ommmmmmm” comes from one of the apartments as I walk down the hall. The sound from the next apartment of a man urinating at 5:30 a.m. is my signal to brew the coffee and wait for the slap of the Washington Post by the boy who balances the papers on his head and carefully averts his eyes—could it be in horror?—as I emerge in my flannel nightgown to grab my copy.
I sit at dawn by the tall windows and look out from my third-floor perspective at the still-dark street with my coffee mug warming my hands. I watch the halogen lights dim and fade while the first noises of the city begin: cars swishing on wet pavement, the rumble-hum of the Metro, and buses shifting gears on Connecticut Avenue.
Favorite mornings are those when the street is lashed with a sleeting rain that beats against my windows. I turn on the little fake log with a heater and revolving firelight set in a small fireplace. It makes the room cozy and takes away the chill. I like to think then of the years when I would wake up in a warm nest of covers and groan at the prospect of facing the elements and a day of work in a dreary government office. If it is snowing, I bring my coffee back to my bed and watch as the flakes soft-screen the dark outlines of my view toward the Embassy of Argentina. A European city could be no lovelier.
When sleep comes in fits and starts, I hear conversations from the street below that amuse and amaze me. A man calls from the sidewalk at 2 a.m, “Jean [Gene?], I’m sorry to keep calling you, but you have my whole life up there.” I envision an assortment of bundles and luggage tied with string and set out by the door. Two hours later, he is back: “Jean [Gene], are you coming down?” Another late night, an irritated young woman is heard: “You are always picking on me.” No answer. “Why are you always picking on me?” No answer. “You see, there you go again picking on me!” They drift down the street out of earshot and I decide she probably had it coming big time. A woman calls out the window at 1 a.m.: “Tony, Tony, you forgot your keys and your cell phone.” She completes two tosses from the window to the sidewalk below. A live-in or a visiting lover?
My life here, in retirement, has a rhythm. For the exercise and exhilaration, I walk downhill to the galleries and museums of the Smithsonian and take the Metro to return. The abundance of theater screens in the Dupont area, plus those at Tenleytown, Pentagon City, and Union Station, generally give me a movie selection that does not affront my senior sensibilities. Sometimes I get on the Metro and explore a line, riding all the way to the end and back just to see what I can see and reveling in my ability to waste time.
Free classical music performances and lectures by authors at bookstores or the National Press Club are other activities I pursue. Each week I attend, with others mostly my age, the Friday Morning Music Club at the renovated Sumner School on 17th Street.
I engage in most of my activities primarily for the experiences they offer and not the opportunity to meet or make friends. But casual conversation or the discovery of commonality with another person is a pleasure for me. Washington is a place where there is an ease to social situations; it is much like California in that regard. We are, most of us, from somewhere else. Many are moving in and then moving on. There are no rigid, entrenched social strata, and that is a special attribute of the city.
Seventeenth Street is my primary shopping street. I fondly refer to the grocery as the Unsocial Safeway because of its motley clientele. I have an insatiable appetite for its yellowfin tuna, which I bring home, marinate, and sample raw before cooking, between sips of wine. I treat myself on hot days to a giant iced tea from McDonald’s.
The hardware megastores have collectively played chicken and stayed away from D.C., but the District Servistar Hardware on 17th Street has staffers who greet you inside the door of their crowded, old-fashioned store. Clerks give advice about every type of minor repair. Most recently, for me, it was a patient demonstration of a caulking gun and a recommendation to use clear mailing tape on the cracks in my windows.
I don’t like to eat alone in restaurants, but I go to the Doyle Hotel some mornings for eggs benedict and eavesdropping on the think-tank types settling the woes of the world in their bureaucratic lingo. I laugh to myself as I request a quiet table inside at BeDuCi, La Tomate, or Lauriol Plaza. The young set waits for the sidewalk tables; I don’t want the car fumes and street noise.
I don’t have to wait in an overdecorated lobby for the sometime services of a van and driver. I have the world at my feet—or with my feet—and it begins at the Dupont Metro.
The greatest peril on the streets are the bike messengers; I have had two close calls. I read the reports of crimes committed in my area with special attention and avoid deserted streets even at midday. On Church Street one afternoon, a young man with an armload of backpacks and gym bags was systematically and singlemindedly opening the doors and trunks of each car, oblivious to my terrified presence.
I wear skirts or trousers with pockets to hold money, key, and Metro card. One of my suburban friends won’t venture into the city at night, but those who do love the new vitality of the circle.
More from age than design, I am home before dark.
The pace of my life is a little different now. A morning of doing laundry or apartment cleaning is fatiguing, and I recover by languishing on the couch. Occasionally, when I come back to my apartment and the light from the windows has faded the cheeriness of the rooms and the telephone message light is not blinking, I feel alone and have a twinge of the panic that age brings. But the strumming sounds of Ottmar Liebert’s guitar come from the next apartment. I switch on the lights, pour myself a glass of wine, and my nest, with its books and mementos, reminds me of Somerset Maugham’s saying that after a certain time in life the best trips are those around one’s chambers.
I like to sit on the curb of the circle on a summer evening and listen as a group of musicians plays an impromptu set of Dixieland tunes on brass instruments. On the Fourth of July, the residents and their friends gather, drinks in hand, on our building’s roof deck, looking toward the monument fireworks. It is then, especially, that I am reminded that I am surrounded by differing lifestyles, ages, and ethnic backgrounds. It is a life as rich in culture and diversity as I could find anywhere. And it makes me feel—well, it makes me feel…young. CP